NEW YORK, NY – The wait is finally over. After months of anticipation, prediction and debate, the stage is set for the most important rugby test match since the 2015 World Cup final; at 3.35am ET on Saturday morning, the British and Irish Lions will take on the All Blacks in the first test of the 2017 tour. As legendary Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan said in 1997 “the Lions are special, the legends go with it”, and each tour team lives and dies by its performance in the test series. For any British and Irish rugby player, the Lions shirt holds a fabled mystique about it; it is an honour separate from but at the very least equal to playing for one’s country. Those who have played for the Lions, particularly in a test match, form one of the most exclusive clubs in all of rugby union; it is open only to players from four countries, and selection opens up only once every four years. Many players will win test match rugby caps, however to win a test match cap as a Lion is a unique honour which, for many of those fortunate enough to achieve such a hallowed distinction, will represent the absolute pinnacle of their careers. On Saturday the 2017 tourists will have their opportunity to begin writing their names into the history books of Lions legend. For mere mortal fans such as myself, the excitement is akin to that of a child at Christmas; I haven’t been this nervous or gripped by anticipation since the night before my native England played Australia in the 2003 World Cup final! This is the thrill of following the greatest touring side in the greatest sport in the world; how fortunate we are to experience it.
Prior to this tour, even the most passionate of Lions fans feared for the fate of the side; many predicted that the Lions would win only one game on tour, their first. Concerns abounded that, in addition to a 3-0 drubbing in the test series, the Lions would be pummeled by each of New Zealand’s provincial Super Rugby sides and the New Zealand Maori in their warm up games; after the Lions laboured to a close victory in their first match against the Provincial Barbarians, it seemed the doomsayers may be correct. However since then, in spite of close losses to both the Blues and the Highlanders, the Lions have turned in performances showing constant improvement, inspiring hope that all may not be lost just yet. The defence has been ferocious and well organised, with lightening fast line speed while the scrum and lineout have functioned well. While the attack has not been as incisive as fans might like, it seems head coach Warren Gatland’s plan to beat the All Blacks is based on a dominant set piece, oppressive defence, a strong territorial kicking game and powerful ball carriers rather than free flowing rugby. That said, Gatland raised a few eyebrows with the attacking nature of his back three selection for Saturday, picking Liam Williams at full back over the dependable if conservative Leigh Halfpenny, with English pair Elliott Daly and Anthony Watson on the wings. It is a back three packed with attacking intent and will perhaps cause the All Blacks to question whether they know what to expect from the Lions come kick off. Gatland has never shied away from making bold decisions (just ask Brian O’Driscoll) and has displayed that trait again with the dropping of tour captain Sam Warburton to the bench, selecting Irishman Sean O’Brien in his place and handing the captaincy to Peter O’Mahony, while Alun Wyn Jones is a surprise selection in the second row ahead of Maro Itoje who starts on the bench. Among the Lions replacements, the front row combination of Sinckler, Owens and McGrath will add renewed firepower to the scrum as well as ball carrying options, Itoje will bring his usual energy in attack and defence alongside prowess in the lineout, while half backs Webb and Sexton will add fresh attacking energy. Warburton and Halfpenny are arguably the more conservative replacements, who Gatland will look to use to steady the ship and provide defensive organization.
For their part, the All Blacks will field a side stacked with quality in every position. They welcome back captain Kieran Read from a long term injury at number eight, while Ryan Crotty also returns from injury at outside centre, in a back line which will be marshalled by world player of the year Beauden Barrett at fly half. 20-year-old Reiko Ioane is handed his first test start ahead of the prolific Julian Savea on the wing with the electric Sonny Bill Williams partnering Crotty in the centre. The second row partnership of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick is one of the finest in the world and will certainly give the Lions lineout a thorough examination. The All Blacks bench too is packed with explosive quality, with Anton Lienert-Brown, Ardie Savea and TJ Perenara all among the best in the world at their positions. However New Zealand will be without star hooker Dane Coles, and the Lions will be hoping that his absence along with an unpracticed centre combination, Read’s lack of match fitness and Ioane’s inexperience will create some weaknesses to exploit.
The All Blacks are unbeaten at home since 2009, and have lost only six games away from home since then. This is a team which does not know how to lose; in the final twenty minutes of their last six home games they have outscored opponents 91-0. The Lions have not won a series in New Zealand since 1971, however if these tours were based on history and statistics they would have been abandoned a long time ago; victory in a Lions test series is an unspeakably difficult feat, which is what makes those rare successes all the more historic. Gatland’s charges will face one of the most difficult tasks in sport on Saturday, but their performances so far on tour will give them optimism that they can land the first blow on their way to causing one of the biggest upsets the rugby world would ever have seen. Saturday can’t get here fast enough!
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